The Firebirds have the home advantage in Sunday’s grand final. Photo: SMP ImagesRoselee Jencke has coached the Queensland Firebirds to three consecutive ANZ Championship grand finals, but with a line-up that has fallen short in the past two. Have the small cracks been filled, the necessary adjustments made? Is this a superior team to the 2013-14 versions?
Judging by the additions to the roster for 2015, one would have to think so. Converted basketballer Gretel Tippett has provided unorthodox but effective support for the colossal scoring machine that is Romelda Aiken, Melbourne Vixens’ reserve wing attack Caitlyn Nevins has flourished among the starting seven, and bonus recruit Bec Bulley provides defensive cover and impact off the bench when required.
“I think we’ve got better depth, and I think we’ve got more strings to our bow, you could say,” Jencke said. “Defensively we’re probably better because I think Gabi [Simpson] and ‘Rav’ [centre Kim Ravaillion] have improved, Clare [McMeniman] is better being her second year back from retirement, Bec Bulley just adds that experience, and I think Laura [Geitz, at goal keeper] is playing the best netball of her career.
“In the attack end, I think Romelda’s in career-best form and she’s really added different dimensions to her game. So, is it a better team? Only time will tell.”
That moment will come on Sunday at the Brisbane Entertainment Centre, where the 6500 seats for the decider against the NSW Swifts sold out, well, swiftly. Apart from a surprise opening round hiccup against the West Coast Fever, and a round-three draw against the Swifts in Sydney, the Firebirds have dominated, logging 12 consecutive victories to sweep the Australian conference, monster the Mystics in a home semi and earn grand final hosting rights for the first time since claiming the title in 2011.
Geitz, McMeniman and Aiken remain from that flag-winning squad, and their influence endures.
“For the whole time I’ve been here, even though players have come and gone, we’ve had three really key players in this team,” says Jencke, who succeeded local legend Vicki Wilson in 2010.
“And Clare was out for a couple of years, but the significant two in Laura and Romelda just lead this team beautifully, as spearheads and figureheads at both ends, and Romelda’s really matured in that and stepped up her game to another level.”
While the result has been Aiken’s third 600-goal season, her new sidekick is Tippett, lured back north after a brief apprenticeship with the Swifts.
The 22-year-old is still learning the game, but brings to it something different and unpredictable. Her accuracy is a low 65 per cent, yet her height (192cm), athleticism, lay-ups and nifty jump passes are giving defenders something more to consider than just stopping Aiken under the post.
“In the attack end, we’re probably not doing the same things all the time and we’re a little bit harder to match up,” Jencke said. “We still play a direct style of game to the circle, but we’ve also got a front end that’s hard to match up onto.
“Rav’s been a great feeder, Caity’s been tremendously reliable and Gretel is a little bit unknown and opposition defenders aren’t quite sure how to tackle her.”
Less uncertainty surrounds the opposition’s game plan, however. “Restricting Romelda Aiken would be our game plan,” quipped Swifts captain Kim Green. “She’s just a powerhouse.”
Yes, the supply is often excellent, but at other times, even in the face of exceptional defence from the likes of all-star keeper Sharni Layton, “they just throw it up into the air and it does seem to get there as well,” Green continued. “So we need to be able to keep our head in the game and make sure that we’re capitalising on every turnover that we get.”
Yet the Firebirds’ own defence has been the competition’s most consistently frugal this season, and in all three previous matches against the Swifts has kept Susan Pettitt and Caitlin Thwaites – the most accurate shooting duo of 2015 with a collective 87 per cent conversion rate – to sub-50 totals.
Another key factor is the location: Brisbane. In seven previous grand finals, the home side has won six.
“I think the Firebirds have been the benchmark team all year. They had a bit of a lapse at the beginning, but otherwise they’ve been so super-strong,” said Green, who, with Pettit, is one of two survivors from the Swifts’ inaugural championship team in 2008.
“They’ve got a really good rhythm now, they’ve got the strength all over the court, they’ve got internationals all over the court and so do we, so it’s going to be a really good match.”
The Swifts’ path to the decider, however, was considerably more fraught. After eight games, the big-name group that had been tipped to dominate the competition had notched just three wins and three draws. The addition of recruits Julie Corletto and Jade Clarke and the return from injury of Paige Hadley meant cohesion would take some time. But this long? Almost half a season?
“We knew that we just had to hang tight until we were able to fit into our own rhythm, and understand how each other play, how each other takes the ball, the speed of how they turn to pass the ball, all those things,” said Green, whose team has spent the past month on the road, but has only lost one game since round seven – to the fresher Firebirds in the Australian Conference final.
“As soon as we were able to click with all that, we were confident it was going to be smooth sailing from there. We just had to be extremely patient, and we were. We didn’t throw in the towel and start bickering, because that’s not the group of girls that we have. And that really helped us.
“Coming off round seven [losing to the T-birds], we were ready to just push on and make sure we were doing everything in our power to make sure we were putting the best performances out on court. We’ve got a strong team but we’ve also got strong-headed and strong-hearted people in our team who were always going to make it work.”
Whether it works well enough in Brisbane on Sunday remains to be seen. While Jencke admits it has been “a real driving force for us” all season to make amends for the grand final day disappointments of the past two, what also seems apparent is that the Firebirds are better equipped to succeed, at home, this time.
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